Glasshouse is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western period piece drama and psychological thriller set in the not-too-distant future. The genre mix may be broad, reaching even further into the realm of fairy tale and hinting at zombie horror but that’s what keeps this production ethereal and haunting. The film centres on a group, mostly women, who are trying to outlive a global catastrophe and the affects of an airborne virus. Wearing bonnets with face shields and breathing apparatus, they protect their fragile homestead from intruders by any means necessary. When someone arrives, claiming to be a long lost member of the tribe, the tightknit community find themselves compelled to help him in spite of their suspicions. Glasshouse has been compared with Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled based on similarities in tone, genre, single location, character mix and plot yet they actually used Never Let Me Go as a touchstone.
Glasshouse is directed by Kelsey Egan, who co-wrote the film with Emma Lungiswa De Wet (in-depth interview). Inspired by old world writing and hinging on a colonial relic, the film’s central themes may seem like they were inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the masks and airborne toxin are purely coincidental. Taking the claustrophobia of lockdown living, the greenhouse is insulated to keep fresh air in and memory-erasing toxins known as The Shred out. It’s perfect timing, having a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film mirror some of the panic and fear-mongering around the worldwide virus that has often felt like a horror movie. While many would rather escape into the realm of comedy and superheroes, Glasshouse steers into the storm, creating an instantly relatable environment and reflecting life through the introspective lens of science fiction.
While shot in South Africa, more specifically Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha), Glasshouse has an international feel trying to remain detached from any place or time. This is expressed in the casting, which while almost entirely comprised of white actors, finds them aiming for a universal non-specific English accent. Jessica Alexander has mystique and instant screen presence, comparable with Scarlett Johansson, who steals the show with her exquisite looks and tone-embodying performance. While a small ensemble, it’s a true team effort with a rugged Hilton Pelser in a strong follow-up to his key role in Moffie, a graceful Adrienne Pearce in full matriarchal command, a wistful Anna Taljaard, innocence personified in Kitty Harris and a tricky non-verbal turn reminiscent of Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine for Brent Vermeulen.
Glasshouse is beautifully filmed, capturing the claustrophobic living conditions of being cooped up whether staying indoors in the dilapidated greenhouse or venturing out in makeshift hazmat suits. The production design aids the storytelling, while the ethereal score enhances the mystery and deep-seated suspense. This is an ornate film, a retrospective period piece that captures the haunting mood of the Bronte sisters through wardrobe choices and production design. Airdropping us into the realm of the enigmatic glasshouse, a world turned upside down as suggested by an inverted crucifix-shaped aerial shot, the place is shrouded in darkness, mist and gloom. The wardrobe choices suggest the small community (family even) live in humid conditions and surrounded by a swampy bayou. Leaving on a fairly open-ended note, it seems that exploring the wasteland beyond the boundaries of this safe haven could spell a sequel.
“The sin bucket must be emptied.”
While guns and an unsettling mood sink in with similarities to The Outpost, this isn’t a western in the action sense of the genre. If anything, Glasshouse is pensive and slow-moving, possibly another reason that its been so closely aligned with The Beguiled. This uneasiness makes it reminiscent of Midsommar and The Village as the sickly undertone plays out against a few callous and grisly moments in aid of the community’s greater good. Carrying an eerie folk horror sentiment, it’s also quite sensual in its clash between fresh-faced virgins and the promise of romance with a lone rogue. Inspired by pressure cooker films such as Hard Candy and Moon, Egan and Lungiswa De Wet classify their film as a “dystopian chamber drama”.
There are many layers to Glasshouse, tapping into the world’s current state of pandemic depression, grappling with colonial remnants and tuning into gender politics. It’s not preachy but the idea of being vigilant against toxic masculinity and suspicious of everyone does arm it with a degree of palpable paranoia and tension. One of Glasshouse’s assets is its dedication to less is more. Starting in the deep end, there’s no rush to over-explain their predicament, offering poetic musings rather than trying to deconstruct the world’s elements or rules. By swathing audiences in this living and breathing environment, it’s more about the discovery and less about tying up loose ends. This slow immersion and suspicion over a stranger’s infiltration and motivations keep the slow-burning mystery smoldering and constantly evolving.
In terms of culture, Glasshouse has its own folk songs and a sense of history and tradition with the glasshouse coming across like a church at times. These elements couch the drama, enrich the character dynamics and contribute to its epic world-building. There’s a degree of story detail that makes it seem otherworldly yet grounded in reality. Being quite slow-moving, these finer details are appreciated and cloud the story with enough hints to point a much greater depth. What’s even more amazing is that the screenplay is essentially a first draft wonder.
Glasshouse is slow-moving to the point of feeling stagnant at times but the underlying concept, haunting tone and world-building is so intriguing, it manages to push through these infrequent sluggish interchanges. The multi-genre film remains fresh, defying expectation and eluding a sense of the predictable with its curious mix of characters. It’s also entrenched in rich themes and its own sense of culture, giving the claustrophobic and gloomy environment a real presence with self-reflective qualities. While it echoes aspects from many other films with familiar story elements, this mix works in a standalone capacity with the potential to branch out into a series. Featuring many promising acting talents, showing a clear vision and great passion from its promising filmmakers, it’s a miracle when you consider its modest budget and first time round inception. Leaving on an ellipsis may frustrate some viewers but will only garner more respect from others who have been enchanted and want more. What’s truly great about this elusive film is its balancing act, knowing how and when to lure you deeper into the mist.
The bottom line: Ethereal